COVID-19 has Indigenous communities in Colombia and Bolivia relying on their own food production

COVID-19 has Indigenous communities in Colombia and Bolivia relying on their own food production

General - 02 June, 2020
Zunil Lozano Medrano, Marlene Soriano, Waldemar Colque, Olga Cabrera & Koen KustersZunil Lozano Medrano, Marlene Soriano, Waldemar Colque, Olga Cabrera & Koen Kusters

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many indigenous peoples in Latin America have locked down their territories. This should help prevent the spread of the disease to these extra vulnerable communities. But, how do such measures impact the people in these areas, their access to food, and the way natural resources are being used?

Tropenbos Network members work with several indigenous communities in Colombia and Bolivia. Most of them installed their own COVID-19 regulations to prevent people from coming in, and leaving their territories. Roads have been blocked, and people from the communities rotate as guards at the checkpoints. We called nine members from seven indigenous communities, and asked them about the impacts of the measures on food availability and the way the lands and forests are being used. Below we provide a cross-section of their answers.

Read also: South American indigenous peoples close territories in response to COVID-19 (Mongabay) and COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples (United Nations)


A direct consequence of the COVID-19 measures is that people’s income opportunities have dropped. They are no longer able to sell their produce on the market, and those who had employment have lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Even those with enough money still have difficulties buying food, because the stores are increasingly empty. As a result, people now rely on their own agricultural produce and food from the forest. In some cases, it has triggered people to expand their agricultural lands.

All access points to the Indigenous Territory have been closed. The grocery stores within the territory are now empty, and people are no longer able to buy basic products such as rice, oil, salt and sugar. Fortunately I have not seen any people without food. People now eat their own crops, such as peanuts, yuca and plantain (Reina García, El Puquio, Lomerío, Bolivia).

SUB: Signpost at the entrance of the indigenous territory Campo Alegre in Colombia

The government gives food aid to some communities, but our community is very distant, so this aid has not arrived. Besides, there are people here who don’t want to accept products from other places, because they say that products may carry the coronavirus. The people here are relying on a very natural diet of cassava, fish straight from the Tacana River, and wild fruits. We just finished harvesting açaí berries (Marcela Yukuna, Tacana, Colombia).

The lockdown has definitely increased agricultural activities. My brothers normally work in education, but now they are working in the field, because school activities are suspended. At this very moment, my own familymembers are preparing the land for cultivation (Reina García, El Puquio, Lomerío, Bolivia).

Clearly, subsistence agriculture is a lifeline in these times of crisis, when income from other sources has decreased. However, even subsistence farming often depends on certain inputs for which money is required, like seeds and fertilizers, and there are concerns that the lack of money may affect the next growth season.


Recently, there have been reports from several parts of the world that COVID-19 measures resulted in a rise of illegal logging, mining and plantation establishment, and associated conflicts. The people we spoke to indicated that this is not so much a worry in their communities. If anything, the lock-down decreased the extraction of natural resources.

Activities such as mining or illegal logging have decreased considerably, because we are taking control in our territory. We are exercising control and vigilance to prevent outsiders from taking wood, or any other illegal actions (Oliver Gasca, El Diamante, Solano, Colombia).

The decrease of extractive activities is not applauded by everyone. In communities that rely on the legal extraction of timber as their main source of income, the temporary shutdown of logging activities has been a severe blow to their economies.

Timber enterprises have stopped operating. That is why many people are jobless and no longer able to provide their families with income to buy bread. The consequences are especially hard for those who do not have any agricultural land, and cannot turn to their own agricultural products for food (Franz Reinaldo Irapi Sepiacupa, Ascensión, Guarayos, Bolivia).


The COVID-19 crisis raises important questions regarding land use and the vulnerability of indigenous people in times of crisis. In the coming weeks, we will continue to explore these questions, based on telephone calls with members of the communities where we work. They provide snapshots of local experiences. We need to listen to these voices from the communities, to know how to help them cope with the crisis in the short-term, and to better understand what needs to be done to increase people’s resilience in the long-term. 

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